Gaza first appears in the Tanach as a Philistine city, the site of Samson's dramatic death. Jews finally conquered it in the Hasmonean era, and continued to live there. Notable residents include Dunash Ibn Labrat, and Nathan of Gaza, advisor to false messiah Shabtai Zvi. Gaza is within the boundaries of Shevet Yehuda in Biblical Israel (see Genesis 15, Joshua 15:47, Kings 15:47 and Judges 1:18) and therefore some have argued that there is a Halachic requirement to live in this land. The earliest settlement of the area is by Avraham and Yitzhak, both of whom lived in the Gerar area of Gaza. In the fourth century Gaza was the primary Jewish port of Israel for international trade and commerce.
The periodic removal of Jews from Gaza goes back at least to the Romans in 61 CE, followed much later by the Crusaders, Napoleon, the Ottoman Turks, the British and the contemporary Egyptians. However, Jews definitely lived in Gaza throughout the centuries, with a stronger presence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Jews were present in Gaza until 1929, when they were forced to leave the area due to violent riots against them by the Arabs. Following these riots, and the death of nearly 135 Jews in all, the British prohibited Jews from living in Gaza to quell tension and appease the Arabs. Some Jews returned, however, and, in 1946, kibbutz Kfar Darom was established to prevent the British from separating the Negev from the Jewish state.
The United Nations 1947 partition plan allotted the coastal strip from Yavneh to Rafiah on the Egyptian border to be an Arab state. In Israel's war for independence, most Arab inhabitants in this region fled or were expelled, settling around Gaza City. Israeli forces conquered Gaza, and proceeded south to El-Arish, but subsequently gave control of the area to Egypt in negotiations, keeping Ashdod and Ashkelon. In 1956, Israel went to war with Egypt, conquered Gaza again, only to return it again.
The initial settlements were established by the Labor government in the early 1970s. The first was Kfar Darom, which was originally established in 1946, and reformed in 1970. In 1981, as part of a peace treaty with Egypt, the last settlements of the Sinai were destroyed, and some Jews moved to the Gaza area. Israeli settlers reside in 18 percent of the 363 square kilometer area. They are sparsely settled in the area as compared to the density of the Palestinian regions in the Gaza Strip.
There were twenty-one settlements in Gaza. The most populated Gush Katif area contained some thirty synagogues plus Yeshivat Torat Hachim with 200 students, the Hesder Yeshiva with 150 students, the Mechina in Atzmona with 200 students, Yeshivot in Netzarim and Kfar Darom, 6 Kollelim, a Medrasha for girls in Neve Dekalim and more. All of the settlements had their own schools, seminaries, stores, and doctors.
The largest group of settlements was the Katif bloc, located along the southern Gaza coastline. These settlements blocked access to the coast from the major Palestinian cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah and cement Israeli control on the Egypt-Gaza border. Another group of settlements (comprising Elei Sinai, Dugit, and Nisanit) were located along Gaza's northern border with Israel, expanding the Israeli presence from the city of Ashkelon (inside Israel) to the edges of Gaza City (the Erez Industrial zone is part of this bloc). Netzarim, Kfar Darom, and Morag were strategically located in the heart of the Gaza Strip (along a north-south axis), creating a framework for Israeli control of the area and its main transportation route, and facilitating Israel's ability to divide the Gaza Strip into separate areas and isolate each area's inhabitants. In addition, the settlements controlled prime agricultural land, some of the area's main aquifers, and approximately one-third of the total Gaza coastline.
The Gaza settlements ranged from religious communities (Atzmona, Bedolah, Gadid, Ganei Tal, Gan Or, Katif, Kfar Darom, Morag, Netzarim, Netzer Hazani, and Neve Dekalim) to non-religious communities (Dugit, Elei Sinai, Kfar Yam), to mixed communities (Nisanit, Pe'at Sade, and Rafiah Yam). Their economies were generally based on agriculture (with many classified as “moshavim” or cooperative agricultural villages), with some local industry (Neve Dekalim and Katif) and tourist facilities (Dugit, Katif bloc). One settlement, Gadid, had a large French population and maintained an absorption center for new immigrants from France. The isolated location of the Gush Katif bloc attracted some of the most ideologically-motivated members of the Gaza settlement community. Residents of the northern bloc (Elei Sinai, Nisanit, and Dugit) were physically separated from the rest of the Gaza settlers (to reach the other settlements they had to travel into Israel, then re-enter Gaza, through another entrance point) and their social and economic lives were more closely linked to Israel than other settlers, with many of the residents working and studying inside Israel.
Jews and Muslims coexisted for more than a decade but tensions grew and, in 1987, a Jewish shopper in a Gazan market was stabbed to death. The next day an Israeli truck accidentally killed four Arabs, sparking the first riots of what would become the first intifada. A brief period of calm followed the Oslo agreements as Israel agreed to withdraw from parts of the Gaza Strip. Ultimately, the Palestinian Authority assumed control over about 80 percent of the area, but an escalation of violence, especially after September 2000, led Israel to impose stricter measures on Palestinians in the area, and to engage in frequent military operations to prevent terrorist attacks against soldiers and Jews living in the Gaza settlements as well as infiltrations to attack targets inside Israel.
On August 17, 2005, Israel began to evacuate all the Jews from Gaza. It was expected to take several weeks, but took less than one. Israel and the Palestinians agreed the buildings would be razed and the army began that process after the residents left.
A total of 1,700 families were uprooted at a cost of nearly $900 million. This included 166 Israeli farmers who produce $120 million in flowers and produce. Approximately 15 percent of Israel's agricultural exports originated in Gaza, including 60 percent of its cherry tomato and herb exports. Israe also lost 70 percent of all its organic produce, which was also is grown in Gaza.
Since the disengagement process was completed, no Jews have been present in the Gaza Strip.
Sources: Settlements in Focus (Vol. I, Issue 5) - Americans for Peace Now
The Cabinet Resolution Regarding the Disengagement Plan
Jewish Agency for Israel
Mitchell Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 3rd Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2005.
Map - Americans for Peace Now
1Oren, Michael, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. NY: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 253.